How a game became an experience

A great game ends at the venue. A great sport experience extends beyond the game.

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Why does a game of cricket turn a billion people into raving lunatics? Why do two warring neighbours put all else aside and watch 22 men battle it out with bat and ball?

Cricket is beyond a sport in India. It is a religion. Most businesses – except, perhaps, the less legal kind – come to a standstill when a crucial match is underway. Barring few, all radios and TV stations are tuned to match broadcast. For a brief period of time, millions of people project their aspirations and frustrations on 11 men in blue. Be it victory or defeat, each is celebrated or mourned as deeply as a personal win or loss. The greater the rivalry, the more intense the emotion.

Waving flags - Eden Gardens, Kolkata, India. T20 World Cup, 2016.

When arch rivals India and Pakistan play, fireworks follow. To watch India play Pakistan at a cricket ground in India is incredible. To watch India vs. Pakistan with a full house at the world’s second largest cricket stadium (Eden Gardens, Kolkata), in India, for a World Cup match, is epic. Not for the match itself – the movement of the ball is clearer on television – but for the wild energy and charged atmosphere.

Clash of the Titans…

The rivalry between the two nations – fuelled largely by the past – can be summarized by a simple statement: India may lose the cup, but cannot lose against Pakistan.

To add to this rivalry:

  • India had never won against Pakistan in a match at Eden Gardens
  • Pakistan had never won against India in any World Cup match
  • Political conflict between the two countries led to periods when the teams did not play each other
  • If India lost the match, it would end their hopes of gunning for the T20 World Cup

Given the hype and circumstances, it took some serious legwork by family and friends for us to score tickets for the knockout match in Kolkata.

The battle cricket ground…

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House full of fans

Memories of historic cricketing moments swirled in the air as more than 65,000 people chanted “Indiaaaa, India!” or players’ names at the top of their voices in Eden Gardens, Kolkata. Tens of thousands of Indian flags flapped and fluttered in the wind.

The event kicked off with the a live rendition of the Pakistani national anthem by Shafqat Amanat Ali. The spirit of sportsmanship was evident as the stadium filled with applause for the renowned Pakistani singer. This performance was followed by one of the highlights of the night: live performance of the Indian national anthem by India’s greatest superstar – Amitabh Bachchan. Echoed by the entire smartphone torch-waving crowd, the rendition was enough to induce goose bumps. The stadium filled with a deafening roar until it practically crackled with electricity.

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Draped in the spirit of patriotism

As the match progressed, the roar became louder. Silence could only be heard at the fall of Indian wickets. Thoughts and emotions were expressed freely, frequently and dramatically. Yet, the crowd was not anti-Pakistan; it was pro-India. Throughout, the digital revolution was evident as a majority of the crowd helf up smartphones in an attempt to capture memories of the historic encounter.

Besides the venue and match itself, crowd culture shaped the viewing experience. The crowd at Eden Gardens was LOUD. So loud that cheers for singles sounded like those for boundaries. On one side, a Bengali guy patiently asked people blocking his view to move by saying “Oh Dada! Eh Dada! Side jao” …”Hey Brother! Please move aside”. For every ball; throughout the match. On the other side, the view-blocking renegades broke out into jigs and dance moves that rivaled Michael Jackson’s. Award-winning melodrama followed every shot.

Capturing the moment - Eden Gardens, Kolkata, India. T20 World Cup, 2016.
Capturing the moment

Commentators were not just in the box – self-proclaimed cricket experts were all around. The dancing dude dispensed priceless tips – complete with full-blown action – for how Virat Kohli (star batsman) should swing his bat or what kind of bowling the relative newbie, Jasprit Bumrah, should do. His cronies chimed in with tips for how the brilliant captain, Mahendra Singh Dhoni, should set the field. With the amount of free advice dispensed, even cricket first-timers could become budding experts.

An innings to remember…

Virat Kohli’s undefeated 55 – complete with a raised bat salute to one of the world’s greatest cricketers, Sachin Tendulkar – sealed India’s win. While the match itself was not the greatest game, the people, place, energy, patriotism and passion made it an unforgettable experience.

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Haze of victory

To watch two great rivals battle live, is to watch history being written. Records were created and broken, emotional rollercoasters ridden and intense passion witnessed, but what remained was the memory of the moment of triumph and feeling of unbounded joy. The kind of joy that was shared by more than a billion people across the world.

When an event becomes an experience…

While the match viewing experience was fabulous, our cricket experience did not end there. The cherry on the cake was staying in the same property as both the cricket teams.

In stark contrast to the super-charged stadium, the hotel was a relaxed space with no evidence of any tension brewing under the surface. Despite their celebrity status, the players were surprisingly normal. While the rest of us struggled to recover from the incredibly stressful match, the Indian cricket team was back at work in the gym the very next day. Watching the men in blue work out was a revelation: they pushed themselves hard, but had fun doing it.

Our trip was full of more special fan moments: sending off and welcoming the team, sharing an elevator, walking on a treadmill, lounging by the pool or dining in the same space as past, current or future legends.

We did not hound any players for pictures, nor did we approach them for autographs or offer unsolicited advice. We did not congratulate them, nor did we follow them. We were happy to observe. It was wonderful for us to simply have a window into the world of cricket that extended beyond the game.

For us, picking the right property turned a memorable game of cricket into a fabulous experience.

50 Shades in Jodhpur: A Royal Holi-day

Celebrate the festival of colours, Holi, with a king in the land of kings (Rajasthan, India).

Red, pink, yellow, green, purple…colours rain down and scatter in the wind. Water balloons sail in the air, bodies flail in tubs of coloured water and water gun fights are accompanied by war cries and wild laughter. Only one Indian festival  turns adults into havoc-wreaking children – Holi…the festival of colour.

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Trays of colour await

For most people, colours are a part of life, but for India, they are an annual cause for celebration. Every March, the country celebrates the most vibrant of all Indian festivals – Holi. For one day the earth becomes a veritable rainbow and the pot of gold is hallucination spurred by copious amounts of bhang (a traditional marijuana-laden drink).

The celebration ranges from spiritual and cultural to wild and insane. From funky beach parties and bonfires to elaborate house and foam parties, the country cheerfully goes crazy and what might normally be considered vandalism, is considered joyful celebration.

A Holi-day to remember: Mingling with a king in the land of kings

While there are many ways to experience the festival around the country, head to the Umaid Bhawan Palace, Jodhpur (Rajasthan) for a truly extraordinary experience. Guests of the palace hotel have an opportunity to experience Holi with Maharaja Gaj Singh II  (current owner of the property) and his family – a truly grand affair.

Operated by the über luxury arm of the Indian Hotels Company Limited (Taj), this impressive property is one of the world’s largest living residences and can only be described as ‘magnificent’. Rising dramatically above the desert capital, the Umaid Bhawan Palace offers panoramic views of the Blue city with the Mehrangarh Fort in the distance. The stunning sandstone exterior, luxurious Indo-Deco interiors, gorgeous landscaping, rich history, indulgent cuisine and superlative service make this authentic palatial beauty a living fantasy.

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Besides the grandeur, the Umaid’s heritage, heart and hospitality set it apart. Originally commissioned to provide a source of income to famine-struck villagers, the Umaid Bhawan Palace embodies the caring spirit of its commissioners. The palace hotel’s welcome folk dance sets the tone for this one-of-a-kind hospitality experience that is a combination of its royal heritage and the legendary Taj ethos.

Over the years, the Palace has not only played host to numerous dignitaries, glitterati and other A-listers, but also formed the set for many incredible weddings and events. The Umaid, and more importantly, the Maharaja (or Baapji as he is well known) know how to throw a party. Not just ‘a’ party…a royal party.

In keeping with tradition and its inherent grandeur, Holi at the Umaid is a once-in-a-lifetime experience – complete with celebrity guests that may include the likes of Sting and Chelsea Clinton.

Royal, classy and colourful - Holi at the Umaid Bhawan Palace, Jodhpur
A royal, classy and colourful celebration

Come Holi, the vast lawn transforms into a backdrop for a glamorous and colourful fete. Pretty white tents adorn the lovely lawns, while a bright sprawling tent features a fabulous feast and dining tables with festive centerpieces. Colourfully dressed elephants add a royal touch to the event. Plates of colour and tubs of water are spread across the lawns for guests to soak, splash, spray and paint each other.

Dressed in traditional Rajasthani attire, folk dancers and musicians entertain guests and villagers alike as they line up to put gulal (coloured powder) on the Maharaja, maharani, prince and their friends.

Colourful gathering - Holi at the Umaid Bhawan Palace, Jodhpur
The colourful gathering paints a pretty picture

Guests are given the royal treatment. From breakfast to lunch, the party continues and all senses are completely overwhelmed: the brilliant colour against the sandstone palace is a visual treat while folk music and musical laughter set the rhythm; delicious food and drink indulge the taste buds and the perfume of sunshine and fresh grass fills the air as joy overflows all around.

An alternate reality exists for those that choose to indulge in some customary bhang-laden food and drink. If the world suddenly appears too bright, or you question your existence or cannot stop doing whatever activity you are doing, or doze off into deep slumber, know that you are probably experiencing the effects of bhang.

Colours of life…

Holi at Umaid Bhawan Palace is as much about celebrating an age-old tradition in a timeless setting, as it is about the royal treatment. For some, this celebration may seem a bit contrived, but for the fortunate, it is a great way to experience the festival in a glamorous, safe and extraordinary manner.

For one day, royalty and normalcy merge till it is impossible to differentiate where one begins and the other ends. Reluctance gives way to total loss of inhibition as grown adults embrace their inner child and celebrate the colours of life.

Bhang or no bhang, memories of Holi at Umaid Bhawan Palace continue to shimmer in mind-altering hues…

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Timeless grandeur

Beyond Holi

If you are upright the next day, be sure to visit the Mehrangarh Fort for beautiful views of the blue city. An architectural gem and famous for its cameo in ‘The Dark Knight Rises’, the fort now features the ‘flying fox’ zip line for the more adventurous. 
Alternatively, plan to arrive a day before Holi to take in the city, and stay a day after to enjoy the luxurious Jiva Grande Spa treatments. After the sensory overload, relaxation is a must.